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Thursday, February 19, 2015

The story I told at tonight's Monti Story Slam on the subject of "The First Time..."

This is about the first time I heard my father's life story. He was a stern man, as a kid I didn't understand him. Why did he mock us for being soft suburbanites when he was the one who planted us in the suburbs? If we were uppity it was: "My dad would have taken down my britches and tanned me for that!" If we were barefoot it was: "When we were kids they took our shoes away in the spring and didn't give them back till fall, so you're going to wear yours, damnit!" He found the things we cared about -- foolish.

My dad was Pennsylvania Dutch. His austere Lutheran ancestors settled York county in the middle of the 1700s and never left. He grew up in an 18th century farmhouse with a hex sign on the barn. My grandmother spoke only Pennsylvania Dutch until she was taken out of school in fourth grade to roll cigars at the "English" tobacco factory.

Why didn't my dad ever ask how things were going for us? Because farming folks don't intrude on your personal space. If you're well enough to do your work, you're fine, and if you aren't, for instance if like two of my Peppler foremothers you spend most of your adult life in an asylum, they say you're poorly and don't inquire further.

So my dad never told me anything about his life until 1999, the year he was dying of leukemia. Out of the blue he called one day - astonishing, he never called me! and he asked for help writing down his memories, he'd gone blind from the cancer and couldn't do it alone. I was so excited, I grabbed my cassette recorder, jumped in the car, and drove 11 hours straight.

His story opens with descriptions of the family farm, which fields were fertile and which were rocky and how to plough a hillside so the topsoil stays where it belongs, how they butchered hogs and dried black walnuts in the attic, how when he was six for the first time he walked the two miles through the woods and across fields to the one room schoolhouse (which is still there in that cornfield, King's School).

There was so much death in his story! He didn't even mention his little sister Pauline who died at six of polio, but he gleefully recalled his the 5 cent bounty his grandfather paied for every rat killed in his barn. My dad plugged most of the rat escape routes and rigged up old license plates above the others so they'd come slamming down over the remaining holes all at once and he and his dog could wade in among the trapped rats, he clubbed them to death while his dog shook and crunched them by the dozen. When he was older, policing a barn too big for that system, he'd sit in the dark by the light switch, listening for rats' rustling, then quickly turn on the light and shoot any rats that had poked their heads above ground, then shoot others as they fled, then turn out the light and wait again. When the escape tunnels were clogged with corpses he hooked the dead rats out of their tunnels and dumped them in his collection barrel.

He shot and skinned groundhogs, muskrats, possums, foxes, weasels, and skunks: back then in the Depression the pelts fetched welcome cash. He shot rabbits and squirrels and his mom skinned them, dressed them, and turned them into stew.

All that killing! A natural segue to his getting drafted 2 weeks after his 18th birthday. He crossed the Atlantic on the USS America with 9,999 other troops. Cots were stacked 12-high in the hold, there was vomit everywhere, especially on the unfortunate guys in the bottom bunks. He won a lot of money playing cards.

They landed and commenced walking across Europe; even before reaching his unit he'd already been fired on and a good friend from training "took one in the throat." His division, the Eighth Infantry, "relieved Bastogne, crossed the Siegfried Line, crossed the Rhine and walked deep into Germany" through that muddy, snowy winter when they could rarely take off any of their clothes at all.

"His day," April 3 1945, began when he and another scout were sent over a hill to check out the village below. Turns out they were expected and so this time THEY were the rats, as they crested the hill they were both shot. The other scout was killed instantly, my dad fell to the ground in the middle of what became the battlefield. A “hot fire fight” went on for hours while my 18-year-old father lay on the field, stung by bits of the mortars falling around him, pressing his torn up face, blood gushing everywhere. He "accepted the fact that it was over and got a very calm feeling, but imagined the sadness back home."

Three or four hours later he was pulled to safety and taken by litter to a field hospital. The bullet had gone in one cheek and out the other, shattering his jaw and blowing out many teeth. His jaw was wired shut for six months. He concluded this section of the memoir with a newspaper his parents brought him when he was finally well enough to be flown to a stateside hospital. The headline read: "Army Says Not Sending 18 Year Olds Overseas."

My dad died not long after finishing this memoir, I'm so grateful he shared it in time. I thought about often when my own son was 18. No wonder dad couldn't bring himself to care about the things that mattered to the kids he raised in peacetime suburbia, no wonder he thought our concerns were foolish. After all, as the prayerbook reminds us, "things which are foolish in comparison to death are foolish in and of themselves."

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Old fashioned potato knishes

I invited my friend Paul to come over and make knishes with me, I'd never tried them before. We used the following dough recipe which is from Joe the Pastry Guy

Traditional knish dough
2 cups flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 beaten egg
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vinegar
1/2 cup water
Mix dry ingredients in a bowl, put wet ingredients into a well in the middle of the dry ones, stir vigorously until melded, knead in the bowl for a minute, cover with saran wrap and let rest for an hour.

Here is the filling we made:

Filling for potato knishes
1-1/2 pounds of potatoes cut in halves or quarters. We did not peel them.
2 onions chopped up in the food processor (next time I will use three)
A big bunch of parsley chopped up in the food processor
1 tablespoon of oil
2 tablespoon of butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
lots of pepper
an egg (or an egg white, or an egg yolk) for glazing

Put water on to boil as you scrub your potatoes and cut them. Put them in the coldish water, bring to a boil, and cook around 20 minutes. Meanwhile, start frying the onions over low heat in the salt, oil and butter. The longer, the better, we cooked ours almost half an hour, stirring constantly, but they could have cooked longer. Towards the end we added the parsley and pepper.

We each had a rolling pin. I divided the dough into four balls, he rolled out two and I rolled out two, as thin as possible, they came out about 18" long and about 4" wide. Along the long side we put a long log of filling about an inch tall, spread some oil on the still exposed part of the dough, and rolled the dough up so it wrapped around the filling almost twice.

Then you mash down on the filling about every 2-1/2 inches with your hand and where you mashed, pick up the end, twist where you mashed (like a sausage casing) and cut where you twisted. You end up with a little pillow twisted closed at both ends. Squish it around and put it with one of the twisted ends down on the baking sheet, then I pushed into the middle top (at the other twist) to make an indentation in mine but Paul didn't do that, so his are the ones that look sort of open at the top.

Beat the egg and glaze the knishes (we used our fingers). Bake for about 25 minutes at 375 degrees. This made about 25 knishes at the size you see in the picture.

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Thursday, February 05, 2015

My story for last night's Storytelling Meetup was about Mrs. Paul's Fish Sticks

I'm very much enjoying the Meetup I created for people who want to practice telling stories. I am a crummy story teller, as I'm too impatient. Most stories in my renditions skip right from the set up to the punch line. I'm trying to do better.

Our prompt for the evening was "Crime and Punishment." Either I've been pretty law abiding or my poor memory is shielding me from guilt, but few events surfaced. This is one of them, from many decades back.

The main characters are me, my mother, and my mother's twin sister MJ. My family lived in a bedroom suburb of New York City; my mother's twin sister Mary Jane lived in a studio apartment on 51st street in Manhattan.

My mother disliked her life and blamed me for it, my birth had taken her away from her glamorous job as researcher at Time Life Inc., where she drank and joked and flirted with important writers and publishers. My father had said the city was no place to raise a child, so because of me she was marooned in the suburbs, where she'd instantly alienated the neighbors by informing them their lives were boring. The adults of our suburban world were bored, unhappy hard-drinking stay at home mothers and tired, unhappy, hard-drinking fathers who every morning put on fedoras and great coats and picked up briefcases and drove to the train station and commuted to Manhattan.

I worshipped MJ, my mother's twin sister. She was feisty, funny, and independent, she was a painter and an art director, she'd been a reporter for Sports Illustrated and traveled all over the world. She'd been thrown out of Bryn Mawr for scaling the walls at night after curfew and for other reasons not shared with children in those days. She and her girlfriend fled to Italy and went to art school there and MJ would never have come back, but her mom got on a boat and sailed over the Atlantic and fetched her back, without the girlfriend.

MJ and her sister, my mom, never got along, so MJ visited rarely and it was always possible she'd blow up suddenly and leaving in a fury without saying goodbye, sometimes even walking the three miles to the train station to escape back to her own life.

MJ loved me just the way I was, which was irascible, independent, full of questions, always involved in messy projects. When my mother said "nobody will ever love you because you are so selfish," my aunt laughed and hugged me. She was the only member of my team, it was her love that kept me from a life in the loony bin.

My birthday is December 29, between Christmas and New Year's, depressing time for a birthday, cold and dark, nobody's in the mood, one birthday morning I called up the stairs, "aren't you going to wish me happy birthday?" and heard my mother say to my dad, "Oh damn, Willy, it's her birthday, go get her a present."

However in December 1962, for my ninth birthday, Mary Jane, who was visiting us, had promised an unimaginably special birthday treat: she and I would go into Manhattan together, just the two of us. I was beside myself with excitement and laid out my outfit days before, a red turtleneck the color of Target superstore and a blue jumper the color of Walmart.

At our house kids ate early, grownups ate late. The bill of fare the night before my birthday featured Mrs. Pauls' fish sticks, one of the three foods I hated most in the world, the other two being canned tomatoes and hot dogs. This time those fish sticks disgusted me so intensely, and here comes my CRIME, I threw them away. And here comes my brothers' walk-on roles, they ratted on me yelling: "JANIE THREW HER FISH STICKS AWAY."

My mother hustled into the kitchen, yup, there were the fish sticks in the trash, right on top in a row, I hadn't even thought to bury them, already you can see I am not a good sneak. I was the most incompetent liar in the family, too, I volunteered: "No, I did not throw away my fish sticks." "Of course you did, there they are in the trash." "No, I didn't."

This inane exchange went on for a while and then my aunt came in and, unaccountably to me, threw in with my mother, saying: "Janie, if you don't tell the truth, I'm not taking you to the city tomorrow."

That was a fearsome threat, so fearsome I didn't believe it. And besides, I was backed into a corner. After you've told the same lie a few times, it's hard to recant, as Lance Armstrong and numerous politicians have discovered. So I refused to confess and was sent to bed in disgrace.

The next morning, my birthday, a new day, I was so excited, cautiously optimistic I put on my outfit. Then my aunt came in the room and goes, "What are you dressed up for? I told you I wouldn't take you to the city if you didn't tell the truth."

The world came crashing down, I was speechless, she left for New York alone, without saying goodbye. I sat on my bed all morning in my special outfit, crying. I've hated those colors ever since, the Target red of that turtleneck and the Walmart blue of that jumper.

I shared this story with a friend and he said the lesson I learned from this event was the wrong one, but regardless, this is what it taught me: that there is no reprieve; even your favorite person, the only person on your team, can abandon you without saying goodbye. We never did take that special trip to the city.